When Music Speaks to Our Experience

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From his father’s bass-playing to his own teenage piano compositions, writer Mark Wallace has lived a musical life. Although he eventually dropped out of music school and turned a different direction, his passion for music never diminished. At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Wallace writes about how Anton Webern’s Concerto, Opus 24 captivated him and helped him understand the shape of his own life. “Perhaps I was drawn to Webern’s structure,” Wallace writes, “because my hear life had had so little. The music was a kind of homecoming, after years of instability and constant uprootings.”

If there was a plan to our life in that time, though, a method, it was not one comprehensible to the limited scope of a child’s mind. Stability answers something in us, when we are young. The world should not be nuanced, since we are only just getting our heads around ideas of black and white, forward and back, right and wrong. It was impossible for me to grapple with notions of impermanence when notions of permanence were still only just forming in my mind. I didn’t consciously crave stability in the years in which we knocked around upstate New York; instead, I developed a keen sensitivity to the unstable, a deep and abiding confidence that, at any moment, everything about the scene around me was liable to be upended, that at any moment things could radically change.

Powerful music writing often charts the listener’s relationship to sound. It’s a treat when a close listener like Wallace is also a writer whose detailed descriptions allow us to hear complex music more clearly, and glimpse its larger meaning.

And this music made a kind of sense that had never been made to me before. I was instantly alert to it, attuned to its evolving three-note motif even as I realized it had none of the structure I had intuited from classical music, none of the same kind of balance and symmetry. This music had a different kind of structure: a framework I could hear, but one I didn’t yet understand. As unfamiliar as its style was, I was aware that it had a style, an internal consistency that told me the music was complete in itself, that it was whole. It was a different kind of wholeness than that of Bach or Mozart. The music was not in any key, and that was intriguing. There was no single tone here with that kind of gravitational pull. Instead, the music built on a foundation it seemed to devise itself, rather than one common to other pieces. It established its own terms with the notes and figures and structures that announced the piece, and then reshaped those arguments in subtle ways with each passing bar. There was much elusive quicksilver here, and little that one would call tuneful. Though I had heard nothing like it before, it was somehow not surprising. Its foundations felt solid and secure.

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